Chicago Theater Review: REFERENCES TO SALVADOR DALI MAKE ME HOT (National Pastime)

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by Paul Kubicki on July 2, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


This July, Pastime Theatre is ripping off their clothes and inviting audiences to join in on the fun. “Naked July: Art Stripped Down” is a theatre festival, part in celebration of the human body, part in celebration of the opening of Pastime’s new space – which, oddly enough, is above the Preston Bradley Center (PBC), an old church built circa 1926. National Pastime has reappropriated PBC’s Masonic Hall, which means you have to pass four floors of reverends’ offices and survive the age-old, sanctified smell of this house of God to get there. They have fixed the space up nicely, though it still feels a bit makeshift.

The first featured show of their festival is Jose Rivera’s References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot – a title both awesome and intriguing enough to rope me in immediately. The Dali-inspired surrealist play follows Gabriella, an idealistic, romantic, Latina woman, whose husband Benito is set to return soon from the Gulf War. She copes with the crumbling of her marriage, talking to the lustful, “inconstant” moon and to her cat, and attempts to get her husband to leave the military. The play intermixes dreams and reality, but we never find out whether it is the conversations with her husband or those with the talking moon that are real.  While Pastime’s production of Rivera’s short play feels amateurish, something about this production still manages to pique some interest.

First of all, Jose Rivera’s play is brilliant. It is so strong that it remains effective, able to withstand the marring of the somewhat inept staging by Keely Haddad-Null. Characters speak in dense prose with a lyrical beauty, without their dialogue ever feeling dishonest or pretentious. Rivera anthropomorphizes the moon (played by Michael O’Toole), Gabriella’s cat (Alison Chemers), and a libidinous coyote (Cameron Peart), making each represent a compelling fragment of Gabriella’s imagination, though each is exceptionally intriguing in their own right. These surrealistic fragments interact with one another, and the result is fascinating, such as when the domesticated cat and the coyote fall into a volatile, lustful affair in which the coyote wants to actually consume the cat, seeming to represent Gabriella’s own relationship with her repressed sexuality.

Though her performance is not particularly refined, Virginia Marie still offers an authentic, passionate portrayal of Gabriella. Though she is stuck within frames of mediocre staging and set amongst a cast that doesn’t share her ability, she still manages to shine. For some reason, perhaps it is due to her natural charisma, Rivera’s language feels natural pouring from her lips. Her performance carries the show and keeps it mostly afloat.

Paul Kubicki's Chicago review of References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot at PastimeThe rest of the cast is not quite as strong as Gabriella. Upon flipping through the program, it becomes apparent that none of them (including Marie) have much acting experience. Given the immense talent pool in Chicago, it seems unthinkable that the theatre would pick a cast of laypersons for such a well-crafted play. Though this is noticeable throughout the evening, no performance is quite as distracting as Ernesto Melchor Jr. as Gabriella’s warmongering, machismo-driven husband, Benito. Melchor mostly just paces back and forth downstage, rushing through and bludgeoning his most passionate speeches. At times, we see him peeking out at the audience; I couldn’t tell if he was intentionally breaking the fourth wall or if he was just trying to gauge our reactions. The other cast members are stronger, but not much.

Director Haddad-Null’s direction is staggeringly odd. There are moments that are exceptionally interesting, as when the moon fiddles atop Gabriella’s refrigerator as the two make love for the first time upon Benito’s return. But there are bits where its hard to see what she was thinking. First, the spacing of what is and what is not the apartment is entirely unclear, as when Benito sits on a bed and says, “This kitchen is a mess!” There’s also a moment when he’s about 10 feet away from Gabriella, but references the smell of her deodorant. This may in part be due to Melissa Schlesinger’s very cool, but too-large and jumbled set, parts of which seemed wholly unnecessary: yes, they talk about cacti, but did we need to see one? Still, Haddad-Null could definitely do something far more interesting with what she is given, and doesn’t utilize the space she has very effectively. Furthermore, she fails to make this cast cohesive, but considering the quality of some of the performances, that seems as though it would be a lot to ask.

Pastime’s References to Salvador Dali relies on a great script and one good performance to overcome several terrible ones, accompanied by poor direction. Somehow, the positives remain strong enough that it’s not a complete waste of time, but that’s not saying much, is it?

The National Pastime Theatre also features three other events as part of the “Naked July” festival: The Living Canvas Eureka!, their pride play Richmond Jim, and Soundings, four films of James Herbert.

References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot
National Pastime Theatre
ends on August 11, 2012
for tickets, call 773-327-7077 or visit National Pastime Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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